The Kindly Mirrors of Future Times

That fedora! A case in point.
That fedora! A case in point.

“… a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

Vladimir Nabokov was in his twenties when he wrote “A Guide to Berlin,” but he already understood the power of retrospection. The ordinary details of daily life gain value once they are no longer ordinary. Just as the present flattens future boasts into banalities, the past exalts the mundane, transforms the everyday into the extraordinary:

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform. Then he will go home and compile a description of Berlin streets in bygone days. Everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful — the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine – everything will be ennobled and justified by its age.

I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

Vladimir Nabokov, “A Guide to Berlin” (first published, in Russian, in 1925; later translated by Nabokov and his son Dimitri and included in the 1976 collection, Details of a Sunset and Other Stories.)

As a writer, I’m particularly intrigued by what Nabokov seems to be asserting about the writer’s (or any artist’s) task —  to be present and alert to the current commonplace, to record it in specific detail, and thus preserve it for a future audience’s enraptured rediscovery.


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